Ballet is a beloved art form that embodies a skilled balance between strength and elegance, discipline and sensitivity. However, despite its popularity among today’s youth, the lack of diversity in ballet programs means there are still barriers for children wishing to express themselves through classical dance.
Underscoring this lack is the recent spotlight on Sae Eun Park, who just this year became the first Asian dancer to earn the top “etoile” rank at the Paris Opera Ballet — an institution that goes back 352 years.
Brown Girls Do Ballet, a philanthropic organization whose mission is to encourage underrepresented populations to participate in ballet, is pushing the art form forward.
Founded in 2015 by Texas-based photographer TaKiyah Wallace, Brown Girls Do Ballet breaks down these barriers by organizing performances and photo exhibitions and by providing resources and scholarships for young ballet dancers in training. Their commitment to giving equal access to what has long been a Euro-centric field is a powerful example of the values that will lead us to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Reduced Inequalities.
“A lot of girls — this is what they’ve wanted their whole lives, but sometimes they have felt invisible in this world,” explains Wallace in an interview with The Seattle Times. “It’s so good for them to feel validated and seen, and to see and get to know other girls who look like them, in this world that has traditionally kind of ignored them.”
The seed of the organization was planted when Wallace, hoping to enroll her young daughter in a ballet program, was shocked and concerned about the lack of racial and cultural diversity in dance studios. As part of a photography project that would grow to become the Brown Girls Do Ballet that we know today, Wallace set about capturing images of ballerinas from a wide array of backgrounds, challenging the overwhelming whiteness of ballet by showcasing the beauty in diversity.
Much of the work of Brown Girls Do Ballet includes charitable initiatives and collaborations. The Pointe Shoe Program, for instance, tackles the economic obstacles that face many in a field where the average pair of pointe shoes costs $65 to $120. Partnering with major pointe shoe retailers, the Brown Girls Do Ballet provided young ballerinas with shoes, ensuring that financial inaccessibility did not hinder their dreams.
Perhaps nothing illuminates the bias towards white skin in ballet more than the clothing, with many dancers of colour being made to wear pale-toned tights, leotards and shoes either due to regulations of mere lack of access to clothes of their skin tone. Collaborating with dancer Quincy Wilson, Brown Girls Do Ballet’s Variation En Hue Partnership addresses this problem.
“I believe black and brown dancers should be able to have equal opportunities to wear accessories and costumes that not only match, but accentuate our skin tone,” explains Wilson, who experienced first hand the microaggressions that came with being a Black dancer in a white milieu.
“I want other dancers like me to be comfortable and happy in their skin, both on and off stage, by promoting self-confidence and erasing the mindset that we should ‘blend in’ with the rest.”
Representation matters. More than just a mere platitude, slogan or hashtag, this phrase rings profoundly true for today's youth. Art, at its heart a tool for change, should never be exclusive. With organizations like Brown Girls Do Ballet, more and more young dancers can see ballerinas who look like them and be inspired to pursue their passion freely, regardless of what colour pointe shoes they wear.